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Guest Editor: 02/01/2016

A synopsis of Sonoma Valley water for the average citizen
(Part 2)

By Fred Allebach, Sonoma Sun columnist and member of the SV Groundwater Management Program

Editor’s note: In the Jan. 15, 2016, issue we learned about our local water sources, the stakeholders and what the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act might mean for Sonoma Valley. This is a continuation of that article. Reprinted with the permission of the Sonoma Valley Sun.

Well Permits and PRMD

Groundwater is currently not specifically managed for conservation but rather through an existing legacy system that has led to unsustainable practices in the first place. Currently, well permits to access groundwater for domestic and ag use are largely ministerial, meaning that if proper paperwork is produced, which any property owner can do, a well permit will be issued. Well permits are issued by the county Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD). Discretionary review of well permits is reserved for all development projects that will use groundwater in the Sonoma Valley, accounting for areas of known groundwater depletion, areas of known saltwater intrusion and also for large proposed uses that will have significant impact on groundwater. The discretionary process is analogous to a use permit; the use is reviewed for appropriateness before approval.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) took effect on Jan. 1, 2015. The law mandates that groundwater basins classed by the California Department of Water Resources as medium and high priority (based on criteria such as number of wells, percent of groundwater users, population etc.), must create Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) by June 30, 2017 and Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) by Jan. 31, 2022. Sustainable groundwater management must be reached by 2042. In such a situation as we have now, with SGMA, declining groundwater, and water uncertainty, we might expect a rush on well drilling. Local property owners who can get ministerial well permits (which would be most), can stake claims while there is essentially no regulation on well permitting and on groundwater use. In a time of diminishing groundwater replenishment, getting a straw into the Valley aquifer is a way to establish a right and ensure future access to groundwater. SGMA will not change current groundwater rights but it will be able to regulate those rights.

Similar runs on resources are made, for example, if forestlands are to be more tightly managed; an uptick in clear cutting is seen. What we see in these situations is the last gasp of selfish Tragedy of the Commons behavior, before controls on resource use are instituted. Such behavior in Sonoma Valley now, given SGMA and GSA formation, would clearly be an act of bad faith.

Currently, the county is not seeing a big uptick in well drilling. This may be an elusive fact, as Sonoma County already has one of the highest rates of well permit/drilling in the state. Since 1995, 3,883 Class 1 well permits have been issued in the county by PRMD. As of October 2015, there are 2,500 wells in Sonoma Valley.

The growth of the vineyard-tourism-hospitality sector since the late 1980s is certainly related to the aggregate number of wells drilled in the county. And, while individual vineyards are great at conserving water, the aggregate total adds up to a big groundwater impact. This recaps Jevon’s Paradox, where increases in efficiency are undone by overall increased use of the efficient technology.


Russian River water and groundwater in Sonoma Valley are typical examples of US western water issues and management. The Colorado River is the classic example; a scarce resource oversubscribed to a growing population and dependent ag means of production. If we are in a classic western water situation, we can anticipate a future showdown at OK Corral between ag and municipal water users, and also between municipalities, agencies and jurisdictions themselves.

As citizens are getting the message to save and conserve water, it is critical to know the source of the water to be saved and conserved, and who the stakeholders and constituencies are who use such water. By being clear, the issues fall out in an intelligible manner and can thus be addressed in a straightforward way in citizen public comments at future water meetings.

The people who show up are the ones who will influence Valley water policy. As things stand now, relatively small groups of people are active in the all-volunteer Sonoma Valley Groundwater Management Program (SVGMP), which has been in place since 2007. Hopefully this essay will help to grow interest among other Valley residents to show up and make their voice heard. Groundwater conservation is an important issue, one the public can keep its finger on by keeping abreast of SVGMP meetings and the unfolding GSA formation process required by SGMA. And the better prepared a citizen is by knowing regional and local water background, the more on-the-mark any feedback and comments will be.

Find out more

An overview of our water supply network:

Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner gives a good background on Western water issues; the essential problem is over-allocation of water to a growing population, along with associated ag and development pressures.

See also the following link to similar issues in the Klamath River basin:

Readers may submit articles of approximately 800 words on topics of local interest for The Guest Editor column. Although we intend to print all submissions we reserve the right to refuse to publish any article.

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